Steven Bennett Jr. drew a loaded .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun during a fistfight in May 2018 in Elmwood, fatally shooting two men in the back as they fled, a city prosecutor told a jury Monday.

Bennett’s attorney countered that the shooting was in self-defense — that Bennett, now 23, drew his legally licensed handgun and opened fire to protect himself and his father after they had been threatened and attacked.

“He was in fear of his life,” lawyer Gary Server said. “This is a case of self-defense."

The scenarios were presented during opening arguments in Bennett’s trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the shootings at 7:15 p.m. May 9 in front of BI’s Restaurant in the 6500 block of Elmwood Avenue that claimed the lives of Cherinoh Kabba, 24, and Juvannie Mitchell, 22.

Steven Bennett Jr. (right) with his father
Steven Bennett Jr. (right) with his father

Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos said the shootings were captured on video that will be shown to the jury. While Bennett and his father were dining in the restaurant, Kabba entered and began a conversation with Steven Bennett Sr. that turned into an argument with pushing and shoving, she said.

After Kabba left the restaurant, Bennett Sr. went after him and threw a punch while on the sidewalk, the video will show, Gaydos said. While Bennett Jr. was trying to break up the fight, Mitchell punched him. Bennett Jr. then lifted his shirt and pulled out his weapon, the prosecutor told the jury.

“Mr. Mitchell realizes this is not the fistfight he signed up for.... So he runs for his life,” but he was shot in a hip, a flank, and the neck, and died in the street, she said.

Gaydos stressed to the jury that Mitchell threw one punch before he was fatally shot and that neither he nor Kabba had a weapon.

After shooting Mitchell, Bennett turned toward Kabba, who was fighting his father. Kabba tried to flee into the restaurant but was shot once in the back and died in the restaurant, the prosecutor said.

The shootings were unjustified because the victims were fleeing when they were shot, Gaydos said. “Those two young men did not have to die. But the defendant in that situation determined that they had to die.”

Server said the argument began when Bennett Sr. rebuffed Kabba’s request to borrow money. Kabba then threatened to shoot father and son. Under the circumstances, Server said, Bennett Jr. was justified in using deadly force.

Bennett Jr., an honorably discharged member of the Army National Guard with no prior criminal record, is free on bail and may testify in his own defense, Server said.

Bennett Sr., 42, said in an interview Monday that he had been threatened by a brother of Kabba’s and that he was was shot in the stomach in August in Upper Darby. Police have made no arrests in that shooting.

The trial is expected to last a week.